* United States boys clothes: the 1860s

United States Boys' Clothes: The 1860s

Figure 1.--Some boys wore skirts and blouses. I'm not sure if skirts as oposed to dresses were more common for boys. Note the pantalettes. I believe this child was photographed about 1860. There is no way to be sure the child is a boy, but the short hair suggests a boy.

The 1860s saw the most cataclysmic event in American history, the Civil War. Civil War battles were major bloodlettings with sometimes more fataloties in a sigle day of battle than whole World War II campaigns. In a country with a still fairly small population, few families were spared. HBC has noted that the impact of wars and social uphevals frequently are reflected in fashion. HBC, however has not yet fully determined the impact of the war on boys' fashions. Some fashions were inspired by the war. American boys' clothing styles, however, did not change radically in the 1860s. Little boys continued to wear dresses. The 1860s were, however, a dividing point between early and late 19th Century fashions. The styles such as skeleton suits had completely disappeared. Tunics were becoming less common. Victorian styles such as sailor suits and kilts grew in importance. Collars that had once been open were now universally worn tightly buttoned, except for small boys who still might wear dresses with low necklines. Some of the new styles such as kneepants began to appear. The Civil War in America engendered some popular fashion trends as well as initiating some changes in the image of childhhod. Pants styles were varied. Most boys wore long pants after breeching--even quite young boys. Other mostly younger boys from affluent familiesd began wearing kneepants cut at various lengths. Knickers blouced at the hem were also worn. The most readily observable trend was before the War American boys generally wore long pants after breeching. After the War kneepants begin to become increasingly popular. This does not, however, seem to be an impact of the War as the same trend is observable in Europe. It may be that American fashion trends were not as affected by the War as they were still largely influenced by European fashions.

Historical Background

The mid-19th Century, until the mid-20th Century, was probably the most critical period in the history of the American Republic. The America of the 1850s was a powder-keg that finally erupted in the Civil War (1861-65) which in large part not only decide the fate of the American nation and in turn Western civilizatiion itself. In the end, the Republic was saved, slavery abolished, and the basis the industrial expansion of America began. This tumultuous period, however, does not seem to have been reflected in major fashion changes as is often the case of major conflicts. These were, however, to come in the late 19th Century.

Figure 2.--Low necklines in dresses did not signal that the child was a girl, but rather just reflected the styles of the day. This boy was probably painted in the 1850s or 1860s. The little blue ribbon which is the only signal that the child was a boy. Note the side hair part.

Sources of Information

Information on boys clothing styles becomes increasingly available in the 1860s. Not only are more fashion magazines publishing information and drawings, but more pgotographs appear. The photographic record becomes more extensive in the 1860s. For the first time we have substantial numbers of photographs showing how boys were dressed. There are some photographic images from the 1840s and 50s, but they are rare. By the 1860s, while photography was still expensive, it was within the means of the affluent middle-class family. Virtually all of the images, however, are studio photographs with the family dressed in their sunday-best outfits. Unfortunately many of the photographs are not dated, forcing the researcher to make educated guesss as to the dates.


Boys' fashions at mid-19th Century were in a fluid state. The 1860s appears to have been something of a dividing line betwwern the old styles of the first half of the century amd the very different stles worn in the latter decades of the century. Fashion trends in the mid-19th Century did not move nearly as rapidly as trends move today. Clothes were still largely hand made and as a result still very expensive. The old styles such as tunics and skeleton suits disappeared in the 1860s. The new styles introduced, mostly originating in England, like kilts, sailor suits, knickers, and knee pants had appeared, but were still being accepted. Some major styles like Fauntleroy and Buster brown suits had not yet appeared. The major outfits worn by boys wwre blouses with pants, one-puece button-on outfits, and cut-away jacket suits. The blouse and pants was a commonly-worn outfit from the 1850s, the one-piece outfit and the cut-sawy jacket became very popular in the 60s. Somewhat-older bioys mught wear collar-buttobing hjackets, a yule populr in the 40s and-espcially the 50s. And older boys might wear suits with lapels. The major stylistic shift was the increased wearing of suits. The new styles had begun to appear by the mid-1860s, but for the most part were not widely accepted until the 1870s. This was in part a function of social class. The more home-spun families of agrarian America were less influenced by the new fashions while the wealthier more European families were. A good example is comparing the Lincolm and Davis families, the two rival presidents of North and South, during the 1860s. President Lincoln's boys mostly wore long pants as was prevalent in America. President Davis was a wealthy planter. His boys worn knicker outfits as was popular in France. The new European fashions would not becpme widely accepted in America until the 1870s.

Construction and Cost

It is interesting to compare the construction and cost of mid-19th century garments with those available later in the century. The garments worn at mid-century were the last era when clothes were hand stiched and made individually. The fit of these garments is noticeably looser than those worn in the late 19th century. This is because the mechnization of clothes production meant that clothes were available in a much wider range of sizes and the cost of producing them plumeted. Clothes at mid-century were still quite costly. They were made by indivudual seamstresses or mothers of varying talents. (Seamstresses generally made boys clothing until they began tio wear adult styles at which point they would be taken tio a tailor. In addition, clothes were not discarded, but worn by a boy until he had fully outgrown thenm at which point theu woukld be passed on to a younger brother or if not yet breeched sister.


A greater variety of garments were worn by boys during the 1860s. Dresses were widely worn by little boys. A few boys in the 1860s were still seen in tunics, but mostly tunic inspired jackets, not the longer tunics common in the early 19th century. The new sailor suit and kilt styles from England slowly increased in popularity. The Civil Wars popularized military styles, especially Zouave outfits. Suits in the baggy Zouaves were in fact a French import. Long pants dominated in the 1840s, but knickers and kneepants began to appear in America by the mid-1860s. American boys' fashions as adult fashions were still strongly influenced by European fashion trends.

Figure 3.--This poor-quality image from the 1860s shows that long pants were still commonly worn by boys. Also notice the collar. While still relatively small, it is larger than collars commonly worn by boys in the 1850s.

Hair Styles

Very young boys appear to have long hair and curls, but this does not seem to have been common after breeching. More photographic images become available in the 1860s, but they are still snall compared with the much more prolific portraits which becomd available in the 1870s. Thus care has to be taken in comparing boys' hair styles in avaialable photographic images. Ringlet curls became increasingly common for girls of all ages during this period, as they did for their mothers. I am unsure to what extent boy's hair was dome in ringlets. They might have been used for toddlers, but I do not think they were normally used to style the hair of older boys. Older boys generally wore short, but not very short hair. It was common for boys to wear their hair over their ears. Some boys had long hair and curls, but the norm was generally short hair. Hair styles appear relatively short.


HBC has no information at this time on materials used for American boys cloghing during the 1860s. We have received some inqiuiries. For example, "I have a question concerning what type of fabric would I use to make clothing for little boys ages 5 and 7 for a Civil War period portrayal. I need to know for there pants. I'm not doing wool, to itchy for little boys. I know they used 100 percent cotton fabrics. The patterns I purchased do not tell you what type to buy. If you could help me at all. I tried to go over all the information from your web-site. Thank You! Becky." HBC believes that this rather depends on just who you are talking about. America was still a very rural country in 1860. Many rural boys probably still wore homespun. However boys in the cities would have worn a variety of fabrics. There are web sites on recreation fashions, you might want to do a web search to see what you can fine. HBC hopes to acqire information on fabrics that were avialble in the 1860s, but has not been able to do so.


We note girls wearing binnets in the 1860s, but we are sure yet about headweair styles. Mothers wanted to show hair and thus headwear is absent in most photographic portraits. American girls in the 1860s wore a range of blouses, skirts and dresses. They did not wear pants which is helpful in assessing gender in unidentified portraits. Some fashions were foexible such as lair length, girls of all ages followed an inflexible rule--only wearing skirted garments. Younger boys might wear dresses, but girls dis not wear pants. And the popularity of the CDV leaves us an enormous photographic record. We see a range of styles. Younger children might have low-necklines, but this was becoming less common as high necllines were becoming standard. Dresses were mostly done with defined waists. Boys might wear simple, often plain suits like cut-away jackets. Girls on the other hand commonly wore elaborate dresses using considerable amounts of fabric in addition to ertra petticoats. And we notice elablorte decoration. The dresses were commonly worn with voluminous petticots and/or hoop skirts, at least for the older girls. Skirt were also worn. We are not entiely sure just how common skirts were. The photogrphic records stringly suggests that dresses were much important than blouses and skirts. A factor, however, may be that children were commonly dressed up in their best outfits. We also see pantalettes as children wore dresses with skirts above the ankles. White long stockings were standard. Stockings and footwear were similar for both boys and girls.


Information on fashion increased enormously in the mid-19th century. Photography had become commercially viable by the 1840s with the Daguerotype. This was a major development because while still expensive, was much less expensive than a painting. Dags and the ambris wgich followed them could, however, not be duplicated. They provide styling, but not color details, although thrre were efforts at colorizagion. Furthur advances had made photography much less expensive by the 1860s creating ever increasing numbers of images. The major development was the carte-de-visite in France (1850s). It did not catch on at first, but by 1860 became an enormous hit. Suddenly their is an explosion in the numbers od photographic images. And the CDV could be duplicated soi copies could be made for families and friends. The concept of the fashion magazine arrived in America during this period. While circulation was still limited, fashion information was arriving at the American home as never before. There are numerous American 1860s images posted on HBC. We plan to eventually link them here. One image is a painted photographic portrait.

The Civil War

The American Civil War has been called the first modern war because of the number of men involved, the sweeping movements, the use of trains and telegraphs, and theincreasing sophistication of the weaponery including rifled artillery, repeating weapons and iron-clad ships. The Civil War was the defining epoch of the American nation. It has been extensively studied in American history, but except for military scholars little noted outside the United States. The Civil War, however, had profound consequences for world history that were not immediately apparent in 1865. The losses and disruption of the war was staggering. More Americans died in the Civil War than in any other war America has fought--including World War II. This was in part because military tactics had not yet adjusted to the increasing leathality of weaponry. The South was devestated and the economic and social impacts were felt well into the 20th century. The industrial expansion of the north, however, was strongly promoted by the War. We do not know, however, of a major fashion change associated with the war. Military styled outfits such as Zouave outfits were popular, but lasting impacts on boys' fashions seem hard to detect. The Civil War does appear to be the watershead between the first and second half of the centuries. In a general way it also divides the period when long pants were common to the later era when kneepants dominated.

The Civil War: Fashion Impact

HBC has noted that wars and social upheaval often are reflected in major changes in popular fashions. A HBC essayest reports, "Most mothers in the latter part of the 19th century were themselves reared during a period of intense and brutal social conflict. They saw fathers, brothers and male relatives killed or maimed during the Civil War from 1861 to 1865. The war was fought by men, and hundreds of thousands of them, North and South, died for their "cause". The Civil War and its aftermath, in fact, claimed more American lives than did World War I, World War II, and Vietnam combined." [The complete essay is avaialble at "Mothers".] The Civil War's impact on America is undeniable. In many ways, modern America with all its strengths and weaknesses, can trace its roots to the Civil War. Fashion changes in boys clothing resulting from the war are more difficult to assess. A HBC contributor notes, "I disgree with the analysis of the effect of the Civil War on clothing styles. Clothing styles for young boys did not change significantly after the Civil War. Boy wore dresses before and after." HBC does not fully agree. While there were no fundamental changes in boys' fashions after the War, there were some noticeable developments.
Dresses: The dresses worn by boys before breeching continued to be esentially the same as those worn by their sisters. HBC does not know if the custom of dressing boys and girls identically before the boys were breeched was affected by the War. Were boys still breeched ar about the same age before and after the War. Notably the fashion of boy dresses, dressed especially styled for boys, appeaed in the 1870s,
Kilts: Boys wearing kilts are more moticeable during the 1860s, but not nearly to the degree apparent in thre 1870s.
Military styles: Boys and men's fashions are often affected by military styles. Boys as a result of the War began to wear clothes will military styles or at least influenced by military uniforms. Suits with bagging trousers influenced by the Zouave style coming out of French Algeria appeared in the 1850s. With the appearance of Zouave units in the early years of the War, this style became quite popular in the 1860s. The sailor suit also apeared in America during the 1860s although it was still not commony worn until the 1870s. Double breasted clothing is seem during the Civil War, but this was not a new military-influenced style.
Tunics: The style of boys wearing tunic-like jackets does appear to have gone out of fashion at about the same tome as the War.
Pants: Boys during the Civil War mostly wore long pants. Kneepants and knickers, however, are worn in the 1860s, especjally among wealthy families more in tune with European fashions. By the end of the 1860s, kneepants and knickers were becoming more popular, aticipating the 1870s when knnepants became the widely accepted fashion for boys.
Headwear: Boys in the 1850s generally wore hats--full brimed headwear, although following the War with Mexico the peaked cap was also won. During and after the Civil War, various styles of caps became increasingly popular. Small boys increasinglybwore wide-brimmed sailor hats after the War, but older boys were more commopnly seen in caps.

While there were clearly fashion shifts after the Civil War, attributing them to the War is much more difficult. In fact, it appears that American fashions, both children's and adults', during the 1860s were strongly influenced by European fashions trends. Virtually all of the major fashion trends (Zouave costume, kilts, sailor suits, knickers, and kneepants) were European in origin. Thus the domestic Civil War may have had relatively little immediate impact on American fashion.

Changing Concepts Childhood: The Civil War (1861-65)

The Civil War may have had a fundamental change in how Americans viewed childhood which would affect future fashion trends. Even here, however, changes in American attitudes were part of wider changes that were also occurring in Europe, unaffected by our Civil War. The Civil War was the last war fought on the American mainland. Children in other parts of the world, encounter the horrors of war on an appallingly regular basis. Although exposed to myriad other forms of violence, children in the United States have been remarkably insulated from the horific violence of military combat. Cultural attitudes towards children changed in response to the outbreak of the Civil War and military conflict affected the interactions of parents with their offspring. The war appears to have been the leading cause in the shift of emphasis from religious to patriotic concerns in magazines and other writings for children. Toys and a variety of public performances, like children's literature, also reflected a growing awareness of young Americans as consumers. Correspondence between fathers who went off to war and their children discloses the continued involvement of these parents in the lives of those left behind. Some historians argue that the physical separation actually increased the commitment of fathers to affective relationships with their children.[Marten, The Children's Civil War.] One historians also suggests that insists that children began to be viewed as "not merely as appendages to their parents' experiences but as actors in theirown right in the great national drama". [Marten, The Children's Civil War, p. 5.] I'm am not sure this can be substantiated, but it is clear that in many ways children were politicized by the war. Boys participated in the war, younger boys as drummers an older boys as soldiers. Children whitesed war first hand, especially in the South, or were directly affected by the economic dislocations, and social changes brought about by the occupation. These formative experiences politicized children and generated a wide range of responses to the Civil War. One possible impact is that the generation of men and women who were exposed to the most horific war in the American experience, underwent a sort of terrifically compressed coming of age, whether in combat or on the home front. This may had engendered a great desire to protect their own children from a similarly hurried growing up when they became parents, a possibility that might help explain the invention of adolescence at the end of the 19th century. It may well have played a role in the fashions which sought to clad boys in idealized, unrealistic clothes emphasizing juvenile status.


There are several HBC pages about individual American boys in the 1860s. One is Bryan brothers , a boy from a rich Chicago family. Perhaps the two most famous boys in American were the Lincoln boys, Willie and Tad. Less well know were the Jefferson Davis children. Another famous boy was the drummer boy of Shiloh--Johnny Clem.


Lessons of War: The Civil War in Children's Magazines (Wilmington, Del.: SR Books, 1999). The suthor worked out his ideas for The Children's Civil War in a series of shorter pieces: "For the Good, the True, and the Beautiful: Northern Children's Magazines and the Civil War," Civil War History 41 (March 1995): 57-75; "Stern Realities: Children of Chancellorsville and Beyond," in Gary W.Gallagher, ed., Chancellorsville: The Battle and Its Aftermath (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), pp. 219-43; and "Fatherhood in the Confederacy: Southern Soldiers and Their Children," Journal of Southern History, 63 (May 1997): 269-92.

Aries, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood (New York: Vintage Books, 1965).

Bardaglio, Peter W.,"The Children of Jubilee: African-American Childhood in Wartime," in Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War, eds. Catherine Clinton and Nina Silber (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 213-29.

Clinton, Catherine, "Orphans of the Storm," in Catherine Clinton, ed. Civil War Stories (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1998), pp. 42-80.

Coles, Robert. The Political Life of Children (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986).

Cunningham, Hugh. "Histories of Childhood," American Historical Review, 103 (October 1998): 1195-1208.

Daniels, Elizabeth, "The Children of Gettysburg," American Heritage 40 (May-June 1989): 97-107.

Scott, Rebecca J. "The Battle over the Child: Child Apprenticeship and the Freedmen's Bureau in North Carolina," in Growing Up in America: Children in Historical Perspective_, eds. N. Ray Hiner and Joseph M. Hawes (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985), pp. 193-207.

West, Elliot, Growing Up with the Country: Childhood on the Far Western Frontier (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989).

West, Elliott and Paula Petrik. Small Worlds: Children and Adolescents in American, 1850-1950 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992). This is useful collection of essays that describe American children as historical actors.


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Created: December 5, 1999
Last updated: 2:49 AM 2/9/2015